Hulu’s The Act enters the 2019 Limited Series Emmy conversation with two stalwart performances and explores how one mother’s suppression of sexuality and identity drove a daughter from one horrible act to another.
Between The Handmaid’s Tale and Pen15, Hulu has become a groundbreaking streaming platform for telling women’s stories (see also the upcoming Shrill, starring Aidy Bryant). The limited series The Act, starring Joey King and Patricia Arquette, continues this trend by going into more detail about the true-crime mother-daughter relationship between Dee Dee Blanchard (Arquette) and Gypsy Rose Blanchard (King) and the years of abuse that spurred Gypsy Rose to conspire to murder her mother.
The one thing this limited series has going against it is that this story has been done before on television. First, in the HBO Original Documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest, which details the beginnings of Claudine “Dee Dee” Blanchard, including her relationship with Gypsy’s father, and the violent end, with Gypsy incarcerated for murder. Then, there was Lifetime’s Love You to Death that just premiered in January, which is loosely based on the Blanchard case, only with different names, starring Marcia Gay Harden as the “Dee Dee” character. And if we’re talking about Munchausen-by-proxy narratives, we can’t forget 2018’s biggest addition to the pop culture zeitgeist: HBO’s Sharp Objects, with Patricia Clarkson as the Southern Belle from Hell and Amy Adams as the troubled daughter (Note: The Sharp Objects book the limited series was based on was written in 2006, 10 years before the Blanchard case).
However, what differentiates The Act from other accounts of the story, and where the limited series really excels, is its focus on sexual repression. In the same way Gilead covers up women in regimented garb and restricts their sexual freedom, Dee Dee does the same to Gypsy, forcing her 19-year-old daughter to dress like she’s 7 (always with a stuffed animal) and keep her confined to what looks like a pink dollhouse with limited socialization with peers her age. At least with The Handmaid’s Tale, it feels like a dystopian future (although watching the news, it sometimes feels like the present); knowing that the real-life Gypsy Rose Blanchard had to live through this makes it even harder to watch, as what she goes through is truly torture.
Dee Dee snuffs out any sense of maturity or sexuality in Gypsy Rose like a fire extinguisher. The limited series hints that this may have to do with her background as a beauty queen, perhaps a disdain with aging. In one subtle moment, two young cosplayers bump into Dee Dee in the bathroom and say, “Sorry, ma’am,” with a lingering shot on Dee Dee’s solemn face. The Act is a compelling narrative to add to a post-#MeToo world. Men abuse power and sexuality of women, and in this case, a woman is abusing her power and sexuality of another woman (specifically her daughter).
Munchausen Syndrome by proxy is fascinating in that even when Dee Dee’s health starts to decline due to diabetes, one would think she’d focus on seeking attention for that—but she doesn’t. She continues to tend to a daughter who doesn’t need the medical attention. The control of another is the release.
Joey King deftly slips into the role of the child-like Gypsy Rose, capturing the awe and desperation for a life outside of their storybook house in every close-up on her face. King just recently appeared in the sex-comedy Summer of ’03, and it’s hard to believe that this is the same actress. She nails the voice, the expressions of Gypsy Rose, and does so while making you forget you’re watching a Xerox of the crime. This is truly a pivotal role for King’s career and proves she’s a worthy Emmy contender against the likes of Arquette (Escape at Dannemora) and Amy Adams (Sharp Objects).
Patricia Arquette, in her second high-profile role of the 2019 Emmy season, also makes you forget you’re watching the same woman from Escape at Dannemora, especially since swapping an upstate New York accent for a Louisiana bayou one. At times, this feels like a part that Jessica Lange would be groomed for. Arquette is terrifying and doesn’t necessarily have the down-home innocence Dee Dee Blanchard displayed in her photos and videos, but maybe that’s the point. This is the Dee Dee that Gypsy Rose was always subjected to her whole life.
The supporting cast includes Chloe Sevigny as the neighbor Mel, AnnaSophia Robb as Mel’s daughter Lacey, and Calum Worthy as Nick Godejohn.
The Act builds to a conclusion set out in its opening moments, but the real trick is that you still wonder how it’s going to get there. King’s Gypsy Rose is utterly devoted to her mother/abuser throughout the whole film and is complicit in the deceit—she can walk, she can eat sugar, she doesn’t need a feeding tube. Hypothetically, she could run away at any time—to authorities, to neighbors, to anyone who would surely listen. But the real disease that keeps her tied to a wheelchair is her mother.
The Act premieres on Hulu Wednesday, March 20.